They say a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, but barely more than 90 minutes into a three-hour drive I’m getting itchy feet. Are we there yet? Our air-conditioned 4x4 is blitzing over a sizzling blacktop across the Saudi Arabian desert, and I’ve begun counting abandoned tyres in the scrub-speckled but otherwise featureless sandy plains whizzing by my window. Aimlessly roaming camels stare quizzically as we speed past.
Once upon a time, travellers on this route would have been on journeys that took years. Merchants and pilgrims were the original explorers in the region, travelling from faraway lands to set their eyes upon the unknown and exchange stories about where they’d been and what they’d encountered. Laden with frankincense, myrrh and spices, these travellers, plying the incense route that connected the Arabian Sea to the Mediterranean, were ambassadors of culture long before such a concept even existed.
For millennia, this was the land of travellers and traders, but until just last month, Saudi Arabia was next to impossible to enter for most tourists. Now Saudi Arabia has flung open its doors and invited in visitors for the first time in modern history. With just a simple online application, travellers can finally access the Kingdom – the barriers are coming down, and one of tourism’s final frontiers can be freely explored.
But even in this quickly changing land, it’s clear that some things remain the same. The ancient metropolis of Madain Saleh – built by the Nabataeans, the same civilisation that constructed Petra in Jordan – still stands, promising to be one of the country’s top attractions when it reopens to the public in October 2020. I’m lucky enough to have been invited for a sneak preview.
More than 110 monumental tombs, with facades in even better condition than its sister city, have been cut straight into the mountains, which are starting to appear through my window. Dry rivuleted cocoa-coloured mountains that look like supersize Cadbury Flakes are now lining the sides of the motorway and seem to be guiding us straight to Madain Saleh’s entrance.
Madain Saleh has been known by many names, perhaps not surprising given the city’s long history and the lengthy list of travellers who have passed through. This place was originally called Al Hijr, meaning the ‘stoneland’ or ‘rocky place’, and later Hegra by the ancient Greek philosopher Strabo and his contemporaries – this was also the name used by the Nabataeans and is still in use on the site today. The most popular moniker, Madain Saleh, comes from the Islamic prophet Saleh, who according to the Quran was chosen by God to warn the people of Al Hijr of the evils of wealth and worshipping idols. Nonetheless, rows of giant mausoleums adorned with columns and capitals wrap around the base of the mountains. Like Petra, this site was abandoned after shifting trade routes, Roman annexation and earthquakes took their toll. Some Saudis believe Madain Saleh and the rest of the incense route is haunted by jinn (mischievous spirits).
Madain Saleh was the Nabataean kingdom’s second city, and it’s often called the ‘other Petra’, but unlike Petra, Madain Saleh sees just a few thousand visitors per year compared to the nearly one million only 540km to the north. Touts offering camel rides, tat of questionable origin and tea in off-limits locations are totally non-existent here. To get that people-free snap, you don’t have to carefully plot where to spend each minute of your visit or set a pre-dawn alarm; instead, you almost want at least one person in frame to show the sheer scale of what’s before your eyes; you might have to recruit one of your companions to be a model.
Stepping into the past
Our first stop in Madain Saleh isn’t actually a Nabataean site at all, but an Ottoman-built train station that ferried pilgrims between Damascus, Syria, and Medina, one of Islam’s holiest cities. This station was completed to great fanfare in 1907, but the ill-fated Hejaz Railway met its end soon after because of British bombings and the demise of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. The route of the rail line, which had been totally abandoned by 1920, closely mirrored the well-worn paths of the ancient travellers.
Beyond the railway station, the carved tombs are already visible on the distant rocky outcrops, and after a few minutes, our vehicle halts at the first cluster, around a rock called Jebel Khuraymat. I jump out, my feet sinking quickly as I clamber across the sands to get a closer view. Four rectangular mausoleums with similar columned facades have been perfectly sculpted into the honeycombed rock face. On the pedestal above the columns, which are topped with distinctive pointy capitals, two five-step staircases, said to represent the five major Nabataean deities, lead departed souls to heaven. One of the tombs has the beginnings of an entrance but is blockaded by the natural stone face from the bottom: the Nabataeans carved their tombs from the top down, meaning this structure was never finished.
Out of this miniature valley and around the corner are a handful more tombs, this time with thicker columns and more ornamentation, including rosette motifs, sets of carved urns and even statues of eagles and gynosphinxes – spirit guardians with the head of a woman, the body of a lion and widely spread wings. One of the sphinxes standing sentinel on Tomb 100, the largest in this area and the most wonderfully decorated, has even managed to keep its head and some facial features, not an easy feat after two millennia of weather- and human-caused decapitations.
One key feature that sets Madain Saleh apart from Petra are the illuminating plaques with carved inscriptions that dedicate the tomb and give the name of the sculptor and the date construction was completed. Only one such dedication is found in Petra, but nearly 40 have been uncovered here. All are written in Nabataean script, the precursor to Arabic, and have been a boon for archaeologists. Tomb 100’s inscription even confirms the Nabataean name for this area as Al Hijr.
My guides and I pile back into the car. It’s only our first stop and already my mind is buzzing with emotion. I’d visited Petra for the first time just a few months ago, and the Treasury and Monastery were still as clearly etched into my mind as they were into the rock face. To be standing unexpectedly with the Nabataeans again just a few months later made me feel even closer to this generation of travellers.
The Nabataeans left their fingerprints all over this land, scattering it with graves for their prosperous and their poor. After a few minutes’ drive, we reached the biggest and best of them all, Qasr Al Farid, meaning the ‘unique palace’. And unique it is, bagging most of Madain Saleh’s superlatives: Qasr Al Farid is the site’s grandest and largest tomb, measuring as high as a seven-storey building. Unlike what we’ve seen so far, this tomb is carved into a giant standalone rock that looks like a honey-coloured meteor crash-landed here. The sun is starting to fade, and the tomb glows gold.
A feast for the senses
A short drive later we’re at the final stop: the Diwan. This huge hallowed-out room with bench seating ringing its perimeter is one of the few examples of non-funerary architecture that still exists in Madain Saleh, but its name is more modern. Once an Arabic term used only for government offices, diwan can also mean a reception room of a home, a place to relax and chat over shisha; the English word divan is derived from this. It’s thought that the Nabataeans used this space for sacred feasts.
It was starting to get dark, and it was nearly time for our group’s own feast. In town, we crammed around a table for dinner, ruminating on what we’d seen that day, before swapping tales and comparing notes about our travels further afield.
With their awe-inspiring, well-established cities, the Nabataeans had a monopoly on this ancient caravan route, and their civilisation stood at the crossroads of commerce and culture. The products on offer here weren’t just incense and spices, but ideas, language and stories. And here we were, in exactly the same place thousands of years later, exchanging and borrowing, trading and travelling: a testament to the Nabataeans’ enduring power.
A few days later, I boarded a plane for my journey back home, my mind still swimming with awe, gratitude and excitement. Every flight on Saudi Arabia’s national airline starts with words that the Prophet Muhammad used to pray before travelling, and this time the smoothly spoken text felt even more weighted with meaning: O Allah, lighten this journey for us and make its distance easy for us. The plane took off, and I couldn’t wait until I crossed paths with this country and its people again.
Produced by Lonely Planet for the Saudi Commission for Tourism & National Heritage. All editorial views are those of Lonely Planet alone and reflect our policy of editorial independence and impartiality.